As a child, one of my favourite books was Insect Life, a cartoon-strip introduction to insect behaviour published in 1948. The date of publication is significant, since it comes shortly after the Second World War, the style of the book being influenced by wartime propaganda publications.
This was a book that exerted a fascination on me through its strange mixture of factuality and imagination. The chapters I enjoyed most were those in which insects were allowed to appear in humanised form: bees, silkworms, spiders, termites and ants. The Colorado beetle and the common house fly received no such anthropomorphising treatment. Instead, these pests were subjected to a damning by statistics in which one individual was seen to lead a cohort of offspring, their pyramidal marching formation suggesting interminable expansion in numbers.
The insects that seemed most “at ease” as humans were the bees, the termites and the ants. Individuals belonging to these groups appeared in various human outfits: scout leaders, women factory workers, soldiers, dandies, peasants, doctors, milkmaids or princesses. What these insects were shown to have in common with man is their social way of life, the comparison clinched by the specialisation of individual members of a colony to specific roles.
The chapter on termites always unsettled me, and now, reading through it again, I see it was meant to, being introduced in the following terms: “Here is the Nazi of the insect world, living to destroy. Ruthlessly efficient, backed by infiltration and fifth column tactics undreamed of even by Hitler, a Termite sacrifices everything, life itself where necessary, for the common purposes of destruction.”
The termite chapter ends with a different analogy, one which points towards the future. The second to last frame is a picture of a termitary, darkly shadowed at sunset, its mud towers reaching skywards. Beneath the picture, a caption reads: “When the young princes and princesses have flown to their martyrdom, the openings of the gloomy prison close for another year.” The last frame is a scene of a city in the style of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, long lines of commuters disappearing into the dark entrance of buildings whose stark towers resemble the termitary. Underneath is written: “With eyes, sex and wings sacrificed to the common good, the termites in their joyless tomb provide both an example and a terrible warning of what may be man’s own destiny.”
This demonising view of the termite contrasts strongly with the next chapter about ants which are portrayed as courageous and inventive animals, despite the fact that their social mode of life is really not so far removed from the termites’. The South African naturalist Eugene Marais had a lifelong fascination for termites. Where the writer of Insect Life saw sinister machinations in the termites’ behaviour, Marais observed deep mystery. In his book The Soul of the White Ant, first published in 1928, Marais expounded his view that the termite is not a group of organisms functioning as a society, but a single colonial organism in which the individuals act as “cells,” and in which specialisation of individuals creates various different “organs” within the “body” of the termitary.
This idea of a colony so well organised, so specialised, so perfectly reproducible that the various polymorphic forms of ant or termite begin to resemble different organs of the body, starts to hint that insect societies are not really that similar to human societies after all. Individual humans are adaptable, both mentally and physically. A person whose job becomes redundant can retrain to do something else. As naturalist Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous, observed in his book Ants, published in 1930: “man does not find his tools growing upon his body; he has to make them in infinite variety.” For Huxley, the comparison of ants and men is a misleading enterprise. He begins his book by stating boldly that: “Innumerable comparisons have been made between human society and the social organisation of ant, bee, or termite… almost without exception the moral has been false.”
A few years ago, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, James M. Costa reviewed how philosophers and writers down the ages have perceived insect societies, and the lessons they have drawn for mankind. He notes how the 17th-Century English philosopher and writer of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, viewed the society of ants as providing a model of the natural law which dictates that every society requires a strong leader at its head: the queen bee or ant. He was writing at a time when England lacked exactly that: a strong ruler.
Kropotkin, on the other hand, an anarchist and early communist writing in revolutionary Russia, interpreted ant society as a successful model of socialist values in which every worker had a role and a defined place, working unanimously towards the success of society. Costa shows in his paper that the lessons insect societies hold for mankind depend very much on the eye of the beholder. The advantage for a philosopher who “goes to the ant” for his philosophy is that it will seem that what he presents to his reader is a “natural” law. For Costa, this is a dangerous aspect. For what is really a “natural” law, when interpretation is nine parts of the result?
While Huxley went out of his way to note the differences between ant and human societies, the American myrmecologist Caryl P. Haskins took the opposite approach. In his book Of Ants and Men, published in 1939, he compared the lives of insect and man in a myriad of ways ranging from the morphological to the behavioural. The danger of this approach is that we very soon start to suspect that Haskins knows much more about ants than he does about men, and what is more, that he is projecting his own cultural bias onto his interpretations.
For example, he compares the evolution of three major ant groups: the Ponerines, the Myrmicines and the Formicines to “evolution” of human society from primitives, to empire-builders and, finally, to pioneers. Of Ponerines he says: “The young are, for ants, extremely athletic, competent, and able to care for themselves, exactly as the children of primitive peoples display an early competence which belies their later deficiency.” Or: “the ease with which the entire economy of the colony may be overturned by a very slight alteration of the environment all bespeak primitiveness.” So much for Ponerines who are, eventually, dismissed as carnivorous, barbaric and always on the move looking for new prey on which to feast.
Of Myrmicines Haskins notes: “the life span of the Queen increased while the stature of the workers decreased” and “the Queen founds colonies among inhospitable regions.” Suddenly, it seems we are reading about the British Empire in miniature… But, the Myrmicines are not plastically adaptive because of their “sanguine disposition.”
Haskins reserves his highest praise for the Formicine subfamily which “excels all other ants.” He describes these ants as pushing “hard upon the edges of the (American continent’s) melting glaciers … an aggressive, sensitive band of pioneer Formicines” whose “simplicity in social life is evident” and who “rely on their own resourcefulness.” What is disturbing about these descriptions, apart from their ill-founded, ethnocentric point of view, is that observations proceed from philosophical insight. They are driven by a preconceived model.
Finally, I’d like to return to that image of the termitary I mentioned at the beginning of this article, with the setting sun behind it, and ask: is the termitary really a good analogy for today’s metropolises: the long lines of commuters filing away into their office buildings? Is the visual analogy, the societal analogy really sufficiently compelling that we should take this warning about our own future seriously?
It is a relevant question. Millions of people around the world already pass much of their waking lives in this way. Have their “eyes, sex and wings been sacrificed to the common good”? Do they spend their lives in a “joyless tomb” as the author of Insect Life suggests? Certainly, I recognise a certain physical truth in the analogy, but I also believe that there is no useful conclusion to be drawn from it simply because, and it is as simple and important as this: a human is not an ant.
Those people working in office blocks are real people, people who love and share and think and feel. It remains the case even though we are distanced from them physically, by their inaccessibility, by the media of disasters or by the disinterested cinema camera. If we look at them from afar, they may seem to be behaving like termites or ants, but when we look at them close up we see that they are as human as all the other human creatures on the planet. In this context, I think it is important to recall again the words of Julian Huxley: whenever comparison between humans and ants is made, “without exception the moral has been false.”
I have long assumed that poets with a scientific background love science and poetry in equal measure. However, I was also curious to find out to what extent science affects their poetry. This is the second part of a series of interviews in which I make further surprising discoveries.
Shen lives in Adelaide where he works as a general practitioner, having arrived in Australia as a teenager in the mid-1980s. A poet of Malaysian-Chinese origin, he completed an Asialink Literature Residency in Vietnam in 2002. His first collection, City of My Skin (Five Islands Press), was published in 2001.
Jonathan Wonham has been writing poetry for some 20 years. His poems have been published in Poetry Introduction 7 (Faber 1990) and in magazines such as New Statesman, London Magazine, The North and Thumbscrew.
I would like to know more of your poetry and science background.
Shen: I graduated from Adelaide University Medical School in 1995 and now work as a general practitioner in Adelaide, South Australia. I have never formally studied literature/creative writing and am self-taught in poetry.
Jonathan Wonham: I began writing poetry at school. My first book publication was Poetry Introduction 7 (Faber and Faber, 1990) and my most recent is the anthology called Future Welcome, edited by Todd Swift (DC Books, 2005).
On the science side, I spent about ten years at university studying geology, graduating at the end with a doctorate. Since 1996, I have worked as a petroleum geologist in the UK and in France. I have also published a number of scientific papers in books and journals.
Would you consider science and poetry to be opposing camps, or complementary ones?
Shen: If I had to make a big statement on this matter, I would say that science gives us tools with which we can confidently explore the world (be that physically or mentally), but only artistic pursuits (to which poetry belongs of course) allow us to experience the world on an emotional level. There are fields where they intersect, of course — psychology has tried to quantify and map out emotional fields in a scientific manner for years — but to me essentially, the arts and science are different pursuits, moving the human endeavour along, side-by-side; neither complementary nor oppositional.
Jonathan Wonham: The words ‘science’ and ‘poetry’ both encompass an enormous diversity of human activity. However, what is common to a large sector of both disciplines is their interest in the natural world and I think this forges a fairly fundamental link between the two subjects.
The character of that interest in nature is not the same however. Scientists try to reduce natural things to their functioning parts or to a series of mechanisms. Alternatively, they may find means of classifying, differentiating and evaluating them. Poets draw on nature as a source of inspiration, in some cases as a set of ready-made metaphors, in others, simply as a scene-setting device. What I do think both scientists and poets generally share is an appreciation of nature and this can be a common ground for communication.
On the other hand, there is perhaps division between poets and scientists as to what constitutes ‘truth’. Truth in poetry is to do with the language being ‘true’, not absolutely true, but true in the sense that the poem ‘works’ and that we can believe in what it is saying, no matter how surreal, illogical or abstract it happens to be.
Truth in science is falsifiable truth. An experiment that can be repeated by another group of scientists on the other side of the world or a measurement that is proven by several different devices… Scientific language must not ‘get in the way’. It must present results in a transparent manner, leaving as little to doubt or interpretation as possible.
Somewhere between these two versions of ‘truth’ is reality as humans perceive it, constructed on somewhat unstable and shifting ground.
What impact does science have on your poetry? What about poetry in science?
Jonathan Wonham: Working as a geologist makes up a large part of my everyday experience and consequently filters into my poetry. I have written quite a few poems about the lives of North Sea oil workers, for example. I’m also interested in using geology as a source of metaphors in my poems.
I don’t have an agenda for putting science into my poems. It is something that turns up occasionally. I have sometimes used an objective style of writing in order to give a poem a ‘clinical’ feel, if I felt that matched the subject matter.
As for poetry in science, I once heard Miroslav Holub, the well known Czech poet who was also an immunologist, tell an audience: “I wouldn’t want to be announced at a scientific conference as a poet.” I find that perfectly understandable. At a scientific conference, the fact that I write poetry just wouldn’t be relevant.
Shen: I think my scientific tertiary education helps me have an analytical approach to the writing process. This is useful in the technical aspects of poetry writing — being able to discern if a poem ‘makes sense’ or not, for want of a better word. It also allows me to appreciate that there has to be structure to a poem. More specifically to my medical education, I approach many things in life in a problem solving way. Of course, a poem is not a problem waiting to be solved, but aspects of its writing can certainly be approached in that way (e.g. stepping back and analysing why a certain part doesn’t work, and why).
I write about my work a bit and incorporate events and stories that I have been told in some of my poems. And I am definitely aware that some of my recurring motifs are very anatomical/body-based, so that undoubtedly derives from what saturates most of my working day. I haven’t consciously tried to write a poem on an abstract scientific/medical subject — I think the human and emotional world will always fascinate me more.
The following poem, “the beautiful arc,” is one of the few in which I personify an object. Obviously what I’m trying to contrast here is the clinical precision of a bullet against the (unseen) mayhem that it can threaten to inflict on the human being at the other end. Perhaps it demonstrates my idea of how the scientific and the ‘human’/emotional world co-exist and sometimes potentially intersect (and not always with a beautiful result).
the beautiful arc
I’m a bullet —
with my cold face of steel
I’m anonymous and with
just one chance
I’ll change your fate.
I’m one voice, a crack
in the silence of night —
a threaded wisp of air
on which screams
I’m beautiful flight,
a perfect ellipse
to fulfillment —
a sculptor of stone
and metal, a glassblower
Believe me when I say this —
I am selfish and understand
only one purpose.
Within my casing
I have no doubts,
feel no fear,
I’m a bullet. Now,
tell me your name.
By way of contrast, Jonathan’s poem addresses science from a different angle.
Jonathan Wonham: A few years ago, I wrote a poem called “Biology.” It concerns a seduction in a biology lesson:
Among the formaldehyde jars
filled with unnameables
you did it to all the boys…
The girl leans on the boy’s back as he stares down a microscope, and he realises:
It was animal behaviour interested you
not the ghostly, floodlit cells
we had scraped from our tongues.
In fact, this poem is as much to do with human drama as it is to do with science and that is fairly typical of my work.
In closing, which satisfies you more — science or poetry?
Shen: To be honest, I think I have never been fantastically interested in the research/’scientific’ aspects of medicine. The bit that keeps me most interested is how the theory applies to people, and alleviates their problems/improves their lives, rather than constructing the theory itself. By the same token, I love the creativity of poetry and feel no compulsion to ‘study’ it in terms of an academic pursuit. So I guess my bent is more toward the practice of poetry, above all else I do.
Jonathan Wonham: Actually, I get about the same level of satisfaction from both geology and poetry. I’m lucky to have been able to get along in these two different areas in parallel and I feel a certain sense of obligation to do more in the future to try and interweave poetry and geology, something I have already been doing in a series of essays I am writing. To quote the French poet Francis Ponge in John Montague’s translation of “Earth:” “If speaking of earth like this makes me a miner poet, an earth tiller, that’s what I want to be! I do not know a grander subject.”
Interview by Ivy Alvarez of Ivy is here. She is the author of Mortal (Red Morning Press, 2006).
Shen and Jonathan Wonham retain all rights to their work. The authors and The North, who published “Biology,” grant permission to qarrtsiluni for use of the materials on this site.